BEIRUT: Although half a world away from their homeland, members of Lebanon’s Venezuelan community have kept a close eye on the power struggle between President Nicolas Maduro and opposition leader Juan Guaido, hoping their country will take a turn for the better.
“Unlike other opposition groups in the past, there is finally a united front where there is hope in a leader,” 63-year-old Lorenzo Saad told The Daily Star.
“[Venezuelans in Lebanon] who were quiet before now have something to believe in and talk about.”
Like many other Venezuelans with Lebanese roots, Saad decided to move his family back to the Mediterranean in 2008, when he grew weary of former President Hugo Chavez’s leadership.
Descent into political and economic crisis in the oil-rich country can be traced back a little over a decade to the former socialist president. In Chavez’ last years in office, Venezuela’s economy took a massive hit, with the value of the bolivar devalued.
Thirty-two-year-old Sarah Walzani, born and raised in Caracas to Lebanese parents, moved to Beirut around the same time as Saad when her father feared that a dictatorship under Chavez and his political allies was imminent.
In 2013, Chavez’s successor, Maduro, took office after narrowly winning an election that was disputed by the country’s opposition parties. By then, the country and its capital Caracas were already experiencing large-scale power outages as the crippling effect of inflation set in.
In 2018, he secured his seat for a second term as the country suffered food shortages and a lack of medicine, medical care and violence amid a deteriorating security situation, with mass demonstrations frequently met with brutality.
According to the United Nations refugee agency, about 2.4 million Venezuelans have fled the country since 2004.
The majority of them have migrated to neighboring Latin American countries, but some have chosen to make their way back to Lebanon.
Venezuela is home to an estimated 500,000 people of Lebanese origin, a representative at the Venezuelan Embassy in Beirut told The Daily Star. U.S. outlet NBC News reported that over 12,000 Venezuelans had been registered at the embassy in Beirut as of 2017.
The embassy declined to confirm how many had relocated to Lebanon in the past decade.
Both Walzani and Saad attested to a surge in activity within the community after the 35-year-old opposition leader Guaido, who is also the leader of Venezuela’s national assembly, declared himself president.
“Guaido is giving hope for our hearts. We thought we were lost before because no one was taking real action in Venezuela,” Walzani told The Daily Star.
“The number of people coming from Venezuela to Lebanon is increasing and the crisis is getting worse, and now we’re getting together more frequently to discuss the situation and help one another.”
For Walzani, the opposition’s united front through Guaido has “motivated and activated” Venezuelans in Lebanon to spread awareness and vocalize the plight of their home country.
Jeber Barreto is a representative of Venezuelan political party Voluntad Popular (Popular Will) who has been active in spreading word about Venezuela since his move to Jounieh in 2015. He organized a meeting at the Venezuelan Embassy along with six Venezuelan Lebanese shortly after Guaido’s announcement.
Together, the group presented a delegation at the embassy that did not include Ambassador Jesus Gregorio Gonzalez Gonzalez with a document urging him to renounce Maduro and recognize Guaido’s leadership - an action taken by Venezuelan Ambassador to Iraq Jonathan Velasco Ramirez in early February in a video posted on his Twitter account.
“The meeting was a bit tense at first, but peace and diplomacy always reigned on our side. In the end the body received the document very kindly, stating that they were going to read it,” Barreto said.
An assistant to the Venezuelan ambassador to Lebanon told The Daily Star that the diplomat would not comment on the meeting or the overall situation at the moment.
Guaido’s announcement split the international community.
While the United States, France, the U.K., Germany and a majority of Latin American countries recognize Guaido as the legitimate president while also calling for renewed elections, Maduro maintains support from key players including China, Iran, Russia and Turkey.
In early February Barreto organized a protest in Downtown Beirut’s Martyrs’ Square. About 100 people gathered, singing the Venezuelan national anthem and protesting against Maduro.
While Barreto himself has no Lebanese origins, his wife, Marrun Adriana Rahme, does.
Her connection to the country ultimately cemented their decision to settle back in Lebanon.
While Barreto and the party he represents has aligned with Guaido, he insisted that Venezuelans here and abroad should move past politics and at least unite in addressing the country’s condition.
“We have been visiting [Venezuelans] from different cities across the [Lebanon], not only with those who sympathize with Voluntad Popular [and Guaido],” he told The Daily Star. The crisis “is a problem for all Venezuelans, and we all have to work together to achieve a definitive change in the country.”
Walzani, who was also at the protest noted that not all activism on behalf of the Venezuelan Lebanese community has been politically oriented. “We have been organizing more cultural events to remember Venezuela in a positive light, and to support one another who are here because of the situation. We want to strengthen our community here.”
Graces Georges, who relocated from Venezuela to north Lebanon’s Koura, said she felt affected by the crisis daily. The 37-year-old was born in Venezuela to a Lebanese father from the northern city of Bsharri. Her mother, born in Venezuela, also has Lebanese origins.
“In my own family, I have a cousin who is sick with leukemia, and we are sending him so much medicine,” she said.
Unlike Walzani, Barreto and Saad, who felt more at ease criticizing the unraveling political situation, Georges was not as vocal about where she aligned. “I don’t like politics,” she told The Daily Star. “Not in Lebanon and not in Venezuela.”
Still, she added, “I feel obligated to say something about the conditions in Venezuela because I can see people are dying because of hunger.”